Former Prince of Wales Island resident and retired Alaska school teacher Melissa Cook shares her 20 years in Alaska, including 18 years on POW, in her book, “The Call of the Last Frontier: The True Story of a Woman’s Twenty-Year Alaska Adventure,” released in October 2021.
The first chapter of her 342-page memoir, “Meat Market,” tells of her and husband Elgin’s first Alaska Teacher Placement Job Fair in Anchorage in 1995. She relays the intensity of the competitive fair, and the strategy that secured their teaching assignments in the remote community of Nelson Lagoon, on the Alaska Peninsula along the Bering Sea. Melissa Cook recalls being told in one interview with the Aleutians East Borough District, to “bring a gun, no dresses.”
The Cooks move their young sons Sutton, Ethan and Everett from their Wyoming home to the small Aleut village of about 30 people, for two years. They forego many conveniences and learn to live with harsh weather conditions, brown bears prowling outside their home, dangerous floatplane travel, a nearby active volcano, and access to fresh produce reduced to once-a-month. Every summer, they travel back to Wyoming.
Cook recounts her Alaska time with humor and gravity, and provides perspective on what we take for granted in the chapter, “Children of the Aleutians.” She describes items that her students had never seen, like bubble gum ice cream, gasoline pumps, ants, shoe stores and even trees. To counter, she raises money to take her students to Anchorage to experience museums, shops, foods and other things not available on the small sand spit of Nelson Lagoon.
The second part of the book chronicles the Cook’s time on Prince of Wales, 1997-2016. They lived and taught in Craig for the first two years and then moved to Thorne Bay, arriving just as what was once the world’s largest logging camp began its transition away from logging.
Throughout this half of her memoir, Cook includes short stories and references to residents, friends, places, businesses and events that will be recognizable to the local reader.
She also shares her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis in 2000, which lead to her early retirement at age 43 in 2011. Despite the diagnosis, she served many different roles within the Southeast Island School District, including curriculum and professional development director and special education coordinator. She was also able to complete master’s degrees in educational technology and school administration. She worked alongside her husband, the district’s technology director, as the schools welcomed amazing advances in technology.
In her last years in Thorne Bay, Cook became an emergency medical technician volunteer. She also shares stories about time spent with her adult sons and grandchildren. Throughout the novel she pays respect to the sights, smells and sounds of the Alaska landscape.
Cook attaches some clever titles to the book’s 74 chapters, including “Never Mail Yourself a Gun,” “You Call Yourself a Dentist,” “No Coffin Sniffing,” and “Don’t Squish the Bread.”
Despite the challenges of living in both locations, she expresses deep heartache in leaving each community, friends and students.
Cook writes for many audiences, including those who have never been to Alaska, and Alaskans who may not have experienced day-to-day life in other parts of our state’s vast array of environs.
Besides being a captivating, easy-to-read account of the challenges and adventures of living in two different kinds of remote Alaska, Cook also provides several historical and descriptive Alaska “tidbits,” as they are called in a press release from the book’s publisher, the Burlington, Wyoming-based Hoodoo Books. These include historical facts about World War II military preparations in Alaska, which are described in “Chapter 43: Falling into the Past.” In this account, son Sutton is temporarily lost when he falls into an abandoned WWII bunker near their Nelson Lagoon home.
Cook explains a range of many things Alaskan, like the Alaska Permanent Fund, sourdough, wax-treated logger wear, skunk cabbage, and the dangers of travel by air and sea. In the chapter “Penguins, Igloos and Real Alaskans,” she rapid-fire responds to those questions “outsiders” ask about Alaska. She even includes a five-page glossary of Alaska terms used in the book.
In June 2016, Melissa and Elgin Cook moved back to Wyoming to live closer to family. Today, only their son Everett remains in Alaska, on Prince of Wales Island.
Melissa continues to maintain her EMT certification, volunteers for a local fire department and serves on the Wyoming Writers Board. She enjoys riding in her Jeep and creates videos for the Wyoming Jeepers YouTube channel, according to information on her website, www.melissacook.us.